Embracing Suffering In Service

Ajith Fernando 01 Aug 2010

I felt humbled as I returned from teaching pastors in the deep south of Sri Lanka. In these pastors’ experience, it often takes ten to fifteen years pioneering in unreached areas before they see significant fruit and reduced hostility. Many give up after a few years. But those who persevere bear much eternal fruit.

When I return from ministry in the West my feelings are very different. I have been able to ’use my gifts’; I am hit by frustration when I return to being a leader in our less efficient culture.

As a leader I am the bond-slave of the people I lead (2 Corinthians 4:5). My schedule is influenced more by their needs than mine. Vocational fulfilment in the kingdom of God is quite different to that in society. Jesus said, ’My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work’ (John 4:34). If we are doing God’s will we are fulfilled. But for Jesus, and for us, that includes a cross. The cross must be an essential element in our definition of vocational fulfilment.

Young Christian workers who return to Sri Lanka after studying in the West struggle with this. They cannot use their qualifications fully because we cannot afford pure specialists. Some leave the country after a few years. Some start their own organizations so that they can fulfil their ’vision.’ Others pay the price of identifying with our people and ultimately have a deep impact on the nation.

I try to tell them that their frustration could be the means of developing penetrative insight. John Calvin and Martin Luther had so many responsibilities, that they could only use their gifts through tiredness: yet the fruit of their labours still blesses the church.


Paul gave an important place to the need to endure frustration patiently, groaning with creation as we await its redemption (Romans 8:18-25). Not including this in our understanding of vocational fulfilment today leads to a shallow church, failing to challenge the world’s standards of success and fulfilment.

The contemporary emphasis on efficiency and measurable results makes frustration even harder to endure. Industrial and technological development in the West mean that things once considered luxuries are now thought of as necessities and rights, even by Christians. In this environment the Christian’s idea of commitment has taken a heavy battering.

We call our churches and Christian organizations families, but families are very inefficient organizations, stopping everything to meet a member’s need. We are often not willing to extend this commitment to Christian body life.


The biblical model of community life is Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us—that is, for members to die for other members (John 15:12-13). The model of Christian leadership is that of the Good Shepherd dying for the sheep (John 10:11-15). We don’t discard people when they have problems and cannot do their job properly. We serve them and help them to come out of their problems. We don’t tell people to find another place of service when they rebel against us. We labour with them until we come to agreement either to agree or to disagree.

When people leave a church because they did not fit into the program, we communicate a deadly message: that our commitment is to the work one does and not to the person in Christ. The sad result of this is that Christians do not have the security of belonging to a community that will stay by them no matter what happens to them. They become shallow individuals moving from group to group. Churches can fulfil programs and grow numerically in this way, but they don’t nurture biblical Christians who understand the implications of belonging to the body of Christ.

Sticking with people is frustrating because it is inefficient. Why should we waste hours listening to an angry or hurt friend when there are professional counsellors who can do it? Ideally the counsellor helps to diagnose and treat difficult cases, and friends give the time that is needed to bring healing through acceptance, comfort and friendship. Hurt and angry people to whom we are committed will hurt us too as we try to help them. Others who are hurt by them could get angry with us because we are committed to them. But we endure that pain because Christ called us to die for our friends.

Several people have sympathized with me, that it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. Indeed we have suffered because of this. A few months ago one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted to death. But I think the biggest pain I have experienced, I have received from Youth for Christ, the organization for which I have worked 34 years. I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has been the greatest source of joy in my life. Wherever you live, you will suffer pain if you are committed to people. This is suffering that can be avoided by stopping the relationship or moving to something more ’fulfilling.’ But then what do we lose?

Some years ago I was preparing a message on commitment while I was travelling in the West. Within a few days three people told me how they or someone close to them had left a group or a person because of problems they were having: an unhappy marriage, a church, an organization. Each described it as a merciful release from suffering. But I could not help asking myself whether, in each of these cases, the Christian thing to do was to stay and suffer.

Drivenness or Servanthood

I write to my prayer supporters, sometimes about my need to overcome tiredness. Many respond saying they are praying that God would strengthen me and guide me in my scheduling. However, there are differences in the way friends from East and West respond. I get the impression that many in the West think when one is tired from overwork, that is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is, that it is wrong if one gets sick through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to pay the price of tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.

The New Testament is clear that those who work for Christ will suffer because of their work. Tiredness, stress and strain aren’t excluded. Paul often spoke about the physical hardships his ministry brought him. This included emotional strain (Galatians 4:19; 2 Corinthians 11:28), anger (2 Corinthians 11:29), sleepless nights, hunger (2 Corinthians 6:5), affliction, perplexity (2 Corinthians 4:8) and working to the point of weariness (Colossians 1:29). Radically counter-cultural in today’s ’body culture’ society, he said: ’Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4:16); and ’For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you’ (2 Corinthians 4:11-12). I fear that many Christians analyse these texts without seriously asking how they should apply in their lives today.

The West, having struggled with the tyrannical rule of time, has a lot to teach the East about the need for rest. The East can teach the West about embracing physical problems that come because of commitment to people. Suffering is an inevitable step along the path to fruitfulness and fulfilment. As the cross is a basic aspect of discipleship, the Church must train Christian leaders to expect pain and hardship. When this perspective enters our minds, then pain will not touch our joy and contentment in Christ. I found eighteen different places in the New Testament where suffering and joy appear together. In fact, often suffering is a cause for joy (Romans 5:3-5; Colossians 1:24; James 1:2-3).

The Glory of the Gospel

In a world whose idols are physical health, appearance and convenience, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the gospel by being joyfully contented while enduring pain and hardship. People pursuing unsatisfying things may be astonished when they see Christians who are joyful and content after depriving themselves of these, for the sake of the gospel.

I have a great fear for the Church. The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. As the Church in the West has lost a theology of suffering, will it be ineffective in its evangelism? God’s servants in the church in the East are suffering because the church is growing. The West influences the East with significant funding and education. Could Westerners influence Eastern Christians to abandon the cross by giving the impression that there is something wrong with such suffering? Christians throughout the world need a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and fruit-bearing.

Ajith Fernando has been National Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka since 1976. With his wife Nelun, he also serves in a church in Colombo consisting mainly of poor, urban first generation Christians. He is the author of The Call to Joy and Pain (Crossway / IVP UK) and An Authentic Servant (Didasko Files).

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)